I didn’t start reading fiction in earnest until I was 22, the age at which I finally left academia behind. It was 1987, my first job was in Central London and I was renting a flat in Finchley which meant I had a commute with time to kill and time to fill. I had money, my own flat (albeit shared+rented) and a growing circle of friends. Most notably, we suddenly had no studying or homework to do, we had cash in our pockets and our weekends and weekday evenings were ours – no homework, no parents, just us, and for me that created space for reading.
I read on the train on the way in to work, I read on the way home and I left books on my office desk, partly to impress, partly to sneak read at lunchtime and partly to spark conversation. I liked reading and I started to like, and be attracted to, booky people.
I can’t remember why, but Martin Amis was one of the first novelists I read, and ‘Success’ was one of the first books. It may have been a recommendation, but it could just as easily have been the enticing book cover in an Islington bookshop that drew me in. I knew of his father, Kingsley, and had tried and failed to read one of his books, so maybe I felt the son might be more relatable.
I was in my 20s, Martin Amis was just about still in his 20s when he wrote Success, it was set in London, I was in London, some of it was even in Islington … and the main character Gregory was desperate to get a girlfriend. I was a long way from home and whilst I wasn’t lonely, I was often alone, and Success seemed to resonate. I can’t remember a lot about the book, but this isn’t meant to be a review, it’s a homage. What I do remember is feeling quite sophisticated, but not in a pretentious way. It felt grown up to be reading Martin Amis novels.
Success wasn’t a very big book either and so it wasn’t long before I read my second Martin Amis novel – Dead Babies. It was an edgy title and had a cool cover. From what I recall, it was essentially a book about a weekend long party, but what I enjoyed the most was the characters and the back stories. There was sex, drugs and misogyny, although I would never have used that word back then. But what I found utterly fascinating were the characters, experiencing a world far more dangerous, darker and sexier than the world I inhabited. I didn’t want to be there, but I wanted a ticket, it was utterly compelling and I never knew fiction could quite be like that. I also discovered how much I love characterisations in a novel, much more than plot-lines and that has stayed with me to this day.
I then read The Rachel Papers, which had by far the best cover and left the strongest impression on me. The book is essentially about a dickhead called Charles, but it was Rachel I fell in love with, or rather I fell in love with the idea of Rachel. The book left me feeling sad, a peculiar feeling as I never wanted to be in there – Charles was a dickhead, that much I remember – but those characters were immersive, I wanted to be swimming in and around their lives for a lot longer than the book allowed.
To me, these books were a trilogy, although I’m not sure if they were ever formally called that. To me, they told stories of a life lived in close proximity to my own, but also a million miles away, and that perhaps made it all the more fascinating and enticing. I wanted it but I didn’t want to be part of it.
Reading the Martin Amis trilogy ’87-’88 re-launched my love for fiction. I realised that reading fiction didn’t have to mean reading Classics. Reading could be now, it could be here, it could be edgy, dark, funny and contemporary. In fact Amis taught me that reading could be whatever you wanted it to be, it needn’t be safe, nor pre-approved, and that sparked something inside of me that slowly smouldered for years as I browsed north London bookshops on my lunch breaks and rainy Saturdays, forever searching for the next great novel.
I only read two more Martin Amis novels, falling off the Amis wagon after Money and London Fields. I’m not sure why I stopped there, perhaps I had outgrown him, perhaps it was just time to move on. In truth I think he had outgrown me, he became too cerebral, too Will Self before Will Self was in fact himself. Whatever, we diverged, but hearing of his passing this week I am left feeling quite saddened. Amis set me off on a literary journey for which I will be forever grateful. RIP Martin and thank you for my trilogy.